A reading from the Book of Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8

A reading from the Letter of Saint James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Observe Israel’s history in Hebrew Scripture and you will find that the strength and security of the people rose and fell depending on the people’s fidelity to the Law.  When Israel was faithful in living out the statutes and decrees given by God and handed on to them by Moses, the people were invincible.  When Israel forgot the Law and became fascinated by alien gods, the people crumbled, finally to the point of the destruction of the Temple and the holy city, Jerusalem.  Israel was led off into slavery and into the Babylonian Captivity.

In the first reading, Moses promises something remarkable that will flow from fidelity to the Law.  The nations will marvel at the Israelites’ strength as a people, their wisdom and intelligence, and it will be immediately apparent that no other nation has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him.  In other words, through the observance of the Law, it will be obvious that God is at the center of the people’s lives.

How can that be?  What is there about the Law that makes the wonder of Israel come about?  The Decalogue directs right-ordered living.  Put simply, the commandments call demand that God hold primacy of place in the people’s lives, a primacy that is expressed by reverence for God’s name and keeping holy the Lord’s Day.  But that primacy is also seen in keeping the commandments that impose a right ordering of relationships among the people.  Put together, the result is a strong people.

In the end, it is all about love.  Loving God with your entire being and loving your neighbor as you love yourself is the unbeatable combination.  Jesus will say that the whole Law and the Prophets are based on the summing up of the two laws of love.

Notice the final sentence of the second reading.  The natural tendency is to think of religion as being primarily how the people live out their relationship with God.  St. James says: Religion that is pure and undefiled before our God and Father is this – to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.  Belief in Christ must have an effect on our attitudes toward and relationships with our neighbors.  A discussion about who is our neighbor is for another time.  Suffice it to say that James warns us that it is not enough to know the texts of Scriptures, that is, to know the Law.  There is no virtue in mere erudition.  Knowledge must spill over into action.  Be doers of the word and not hearers only.  From one of the great parables it will become clear that I didn’t notice him/her will get us nowhere as an excuse.  Just ask Dives who didn’t notice Lazarus begging at his doorpost.  Dives is the epitome of the world’s values of which James warns us to keep unstained.

This Sunday’s Gospel finds Jesus embroiled in controversy.  It seems scandal is rising from the fact that some of Jesus’ disciples are not observing the minutiae of the Law.  A bit of an aside here.  Over the years, students of the Law became fixated on the Law and sought to affix to it laws that governed every possible human thought, word, or deed.  That’s how there came to be over 600 laws, and these made their way in the Scripture.  According to the Pharisees, the good and faithful Jew was bound to observe them all.

The scandalous behavior the Pharisees had observed was that some of Jesus’ disciples ate their meals with unclean, that is, unwashed hands.  There is no arguing that sanitation is a good precaution for one’s health’s sake.  But what has happened is that multiple purifications only beginning with the washing of hands has become have become matters of law, and therefore, their observance, signs of one’s fidelity to God.  The lavations purify one who may have come into contact with someone unclean, a leper, a Gentile, a beaten Samaritan lying by the side of the road.  The purifications go on to cover everything imaginable, all of equal importance and weight.

This is the gravitas of the confrontation by the Pharisees:  Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat a meal with unclean hands?  Notice that Jesus’ response doesn’t touch upon the washing issue.  He goes deeper and returns the ball to the Pharisees’ court, so to speak.  First, he says, not all laws are of equal importance.  There are the great commandments that make up God’s Law.  Many of the other laws are merely human tradition, the result of students of the law arguing over the law.  Focusing on the Law and its observance says nothing about the human heart.  Scrupulosity is not an indication of a depth of faith.  Just the opposite may be true.

The main question here is, where is your heart.  Is preoccupation with the minutiae of the law actually an expression of the desire to know, love and serve God?  Does that quest result in the need to know, love and serve the neighbor?  It is, after all, Jesus who identifies love of God and love of neighbor.  One cannot love God without loving the neighbor.

There was a famous exchange between Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the British journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge.  At the time, Muggeridge had moved from atheism to agnosticism and was trying to find his way back to faith.  He had been observing Mother Teresa’s charitable work, making it the subject of a documentary that he was filming for British television.  He watched her care for abandoned babies and the dying poor.  It was messy and exhausting work.  Observing in silence for as long as he could, Muggeridge finally asked Mother, “Why do you do what you do?”

Her simple answer was, faith.  To which Muggeridge responded that there were many people of faith, but they did not do what she did.  There must be something more.

Then Mother Teresa held the hand of a dying, penniless man.  She said, “Look at this man in his misery.  When I am ministering to him, I am ministering to Christ in his Passion.

There you have it.  Simple, isn’t it?  It is, when seen through the eyes of faith.  Jesus came to do something entirely new.  Taking on human flesh, he forever united the human and the divine.  In the words of Genesis, God said, Let us make the human in our image and likeness.  Through Jesus, God becomes identified with the human.  How one treats a human being is how one treats God.  That is Mother Teresa’s insight.  That is what Jesus is trying to get the Pharisees and his disciples and us to see.  This is the attitude that will motivate people in the Kingdom Jesus is bringing when God reigns.  In that kingdom, when it comes to law, there will be none more demanding than the law of love.

It is said that when the first Christians were being put to death for their faith, those who looked on were stunned by the care the condemned had for each other and their desire to support each other.  See how these Christians love one another!  Perhaps that is why the Church began to flourish in that time of persecution, and has continued to do so in every other time of persecution.  Many of those who first witnessed that Christian love sought that source of strength and purpose for themselves.

Could this be why Pope Francis is urging the faithful to recognize that what the Church must be about is love.  This poorer Church, serving the needs of the poor, must hold the poor in primacy of place.  The shepherds must shepherd in the midst of the sheep.  Are we getting the idea?

We come together every Sunday for Liturgy.  Certainly there is a commandment to do so.  But I would pray that that is not the primary reason why we assemble.  Rather, we come together to be united in the love of Christ that we celebrate in Word and Sacrament.

It is safe to say that the health of the parish rests on the strength of the love that binds the members together with each other and with Christ.  If the stranger who enters the assembly for the first time is struck by how these Christians love one another, s/he will want to stay and be part of that love fest.  If that celebration results in the transformation of that people into the Body of Christ, that is, if they are empowered to recognize the Christ within them whose Body and Blood they have shared, and in that recognition go out to bring Christ to the orphan and the widow, to the other poor with whom they come in contact, if it is clear that they are about love and their desire is to serve, others, including the stranger, will marvel at the health of the Church and desire to be part of it.

We don’t even have to talk about the other side of that coin.

Suffice it to say, love is much more demanding than law, and much more freeing, especially if you are willing to die in the process.



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